Review: “Doctor Parnassus,” Ledger’s swan song

* * * out of four stars

Terry Gilliam’s “The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus” is very energetic, quite odd and a little long. It stars Heath Ledger in his final screen role and features incredible visual effects. It’s a very fun film to watch.

The plot is a bit weird. It takes place in I believe modern times, but it features characters who seem stuck in an old children’s book. These characters are Doctor Parnassus (Christopher Plummer, “Star Trek VI,” “Syriana”), his daughter Valentina (Lily Cole), his pupil Anton (Andrew Garfield, “Lions for Lambs”), and his best friend and life buddy Percy (Verne Troyer, “Mini-Me” from the “Austin Powers” series, something he’ll never live down).

The strange group travels the streets of London putting on magic shows in which guests are asked to step into a mirror… into the imagination of Dr. Parnassus. The thing is, the trick is no illusion. Once the mirror is breached, you’re in a world of incredible sights and sounds. But precautions should be taken. People have been known to die behind the mirror. This of course is not explained in the act.

The traveling troupe needs money. Valentina also wants to be free from the show as she is almost 16 and of legal age to do so. Little does she know about the pact Parnassus made with the devil so many years ago.

Everything gets screwed up when they pick up Tony (Ledger), a mysterious fellow who appears to have hanged himself under a bridge. They save him in time, but have several unanswered questions that may decide the fate of the four performers.

Tony enters the “imaginarium” behind the mirror three times. Heath Ledger died of an accidental overdose before those scenes could be filmed. So, in keeping with the spirit of “the show must go on,” director Terry Gilliam got actors Johnny Depp (“Pirates of the Caribbean,” “Alice in Wonderland”), Jude Law (“I Heart Huckabees,” “Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow”) and Colin Farrell (“Miami Vice,” “In Bruges”) to fill in for Heath. To my knowledge, they all refused to be paid for it. These scenes are well done. Depp, Law, and Farrell are exceptional actors, no doubt on Ledger’s level, and they portray Tony as close to Ledger’s version as they can. They do a fine job.

The movie’s problem isn’t its acting. Ledger and crew all turn in superb performances. The problem is the drawn-out plot involving the doctor’s deal with the devil, played by musician Tom Waits. These scenes involving the backstory are rich in detail and fun for the eyes, but they drag out the story, which already feels a little long and detailed to begin with. The most significant instance is a flashback story Parnassus tells his daughter about when he was a monk at a sort of time temple at the edge of the universe. It’s a beautiful scene, but it feels superfluous.

So, all that said, will this final film from Heath Ledger be remembered more than his performance in “The Dark Knight?” No. Definitely not. But it is a lovely and extravagant goodbye from one of the best actors of our time.

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